Forget burgers and brats. If you’re a disciple of outdoor cooking — and you aren’t averse to red meat — steak should should be your go-to dish. It’s simple to prepare, and a forkful of tender, fatty beef is one of the most beautiful edible delights known to mankind.
Despite its simplicity, steak is also remarkably easy to screw up. Amateur backyard cooks routinely turn gorgeous slabs into tough, overwrought, buckled meat pucks. It saddens me, because I’m hungry, dammit.
I’ve learned a bit grilling steaks over the years. I’m no expert, but I do know where to start, and all it takes is a hot fire and pantry staples. Here’s a step-by-step process.
Choosing the Right Cut
The display case at your local butcher will be packed with options, from classy filet mignon to skirt, tri-tip and flatiron. Certainly, any cut of beef can be delicious with the right preparation, but if you’re really looking for great steak, start with the favorites. The four best grilling steaks are usually listed in this order, from most tender to most flavorful:
Filet Mignon (or Tenderloin Steak): Most tender, but with the least amount of beefy flavor. That’s misleading, though, since filets still taste really, really good.
Strip Steaks (NY strip, Kansas City strip, Strip loin): A little more beef flavor than filets, and also a bit less tender.
Ribeye: Regarded as the best balance of flavor and texture. It’s also fun to say. “Ribeye.”
Top Sirloin: This cut has the boldest flavor and (usually) the most affordable pricing, but is often less tender.
(Note: Porterhouses and T-bones include both the strip and filet, attached together with bone. They are awesome, but they are also big and expensive.)
Some eaters prefer texture to flavor, especially since all steaks are pretty damn tasty. I’m one of those eaters, so I lean toward the top of the list. I find strip steaks are usually the best mix of flavor, tenderness and cost, but nothing beats a flawlessly prepared filet.
Regardless of the cut, you’re going to want a slab that’s well-marbled, with dashes of white fat throughout the meat. The most well-marbled beef is often labeled “Prime”, and will be more expensive. If you’re looking to go all out, the extra cost is definitely worth it. If you want to be a responsible steward of the earth, local grass-fed beef is terrific, but, sadly, will likely be less fatty.
Measurements are a matter of preference, though aiming for 1.5 inch thickness is ideal. Uniformity between your steaks helps with even cooking. The fat at the edges of the meat shouldn’t be more than a 1/4 of an inch or so. Don’t be afraid to ask your butcher for your specific preferences.
30-40 minutes before grilling, pull your steaks from the refrigerator and allow them to reach room temperature. This helps with even cooking. If your steak has fat strips along the edges, score the fat with a knife every 1.5 inches or so, making sure to only cut through the fat and not the meat itself. This will keep your steak from buckling.
My dressing advice was culled from David Walzog, the executive chef at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse in New York, as relayed to NY Magazine. Basically, melt a bunch of butter, skim off the solids, pour in some oil, and dredge your steaks through the resulting liquid once it’s cooled. Then scatter a bunch of salt and fresh-cracked pepper both sides. You really can’t overdo it on the salt, as it helps build a great crust. Ideally, put the salt on as close to grilling as possible, because salt pulls juices from the meat.
I’m all for dressing steaks with fancy accoutrements like bleu cheese crumbles and rubs and the like, but cuts like the ones listed above are spectacular on their own. Once you’ve mastered the pepper/salt/butter/oil mix, feel free to branch out. Avoid marinades, though, as the moisture prevents development of the crust.
You’ll want your grill hot just as the meat is salted. And by “hot”, I mean “as hot as you can possibly get it”. If you’re using a Weber kettle grill, you’ll be hard pressed to hit 500°, but gas and higher end charcoal grills can reach over 700°. It’s good to have an approximate idea of how hot your grill gets, because cooking times can vary considerably. Still, the point is, the hotter the better.
Put your meat over direct heat to sear the steak. If your temperature is in the 500° range, leave it on there for 2 minutes or so with the grill covered. If it’s hotter, you can go less, but the idea is to get a lightly charred crust. Flip the steak to sear the other side for another 2 minutes.
At this point, you want your steak to keep cooking for a few more minutes, but preferably not over direct heat. For charcoal grills, move the steak to the coolest part of the grill surface, replace the lid, and limit airflow to the heat source as much as possible. With gas grills, you can simply move the steak away from the direct flame while still maintaining heat throughout your grill. This non-searing phase can last anywhere from 1-5 minutes, depending on preference. This indirect phase is also the last time you should flip your meat back to the side you initially seared.
As far as cooking times, my advice is to err on the rare side. I won’t pretend to understand people who like their steak medium to well done, but you can always put the steak back on the grill. If you overcook, however, it’s game over, man. With thinner cuts, a family that prefers their meat bloody, and a grill that tops out around 650°, my cooking time, from start to finish, is usually around 4-5 minutes (1:30 for searing each side, 1-2 minutes over indirect heat). You may think you like your steak medium, but try it rarer, especially with a good cut of beef.
There are a number of ways to check doneness. You can use a fancy instant read thermometer (this one is my favorite, a worthy investment for serious cooks), but you can also judge based on touch. Press on your earlobe, the tip of your nose, and then your chin. These are handy stand-ins for rare, medium, and well-done, respectively. Again, it’s wise to err on the underdone side, since the meat will continue to cook even after it’s been pulled off the grill.
When your steak is done, put it on a plate and loosely cover with foil. Giving the meat some time to rest allows juices which have receded to the center of the meat to redistribute throughout the cut. A lot of places recommend resting your steak for 10 minutes, but I’d say 6-7 is preferable, since you still want the meat hot.
Serve steaks with salad or bread or whatever the hell you want. I don’t have to walk you through all of this, do I? As for beverages, bold red wines are always good with red meat. Beer-wise, you’re best off with a dry stout or black IPA.
For perhaps the best, most entertaining source of barbecue/grilling information on the web, check out Amazing Ribs.